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Some diners even fly in for a fancy meal

Upscale dining bountiful throughout the Mississippi Delta

AROUND THE DELTA — In Cleveland, people often fly in to dine at K.C.’s, an award-winning restaurant, on special occasions. In downtown Clarksdale, Madidi, a newly opened restaurant owned by Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman, stays packed. Despite their locations in small towns with lower per capita income than the norm, upscale dining in the Delta is thriving.

“I’m pleased as punch that we have our restaurant and that it’s been accepted as well as it has been, and that we’re doing as well as we’re doing,” said Morgan Freeman, co-owner of Madidi, which opened last November. “We’ve had a lot of positive response, so we’re going to be continuing to do our best to upgrade ourselves and be the best in Mississippi and maybe one of the best in the world.”

Bill Luckett, Freeman’s partner, said it was important to offer a “fine dining experience, white tablecloth, fresh flowers, nice silver, nice crystal, nice everything, with a menu that changes seasonally.”

“We have a full bar, French-technique prepared dishes ranging from rack of lamb to locally raised hybrid bass, and even a few dishes with a Delta flavor,” he said. “Our prices are moderate to expensive, and our wine list includes bottles from $16 to $100.”

The 72-seat restaurant, located in the original Landry’s building, features private dining facilities for parties and corporate events. The restaurant, which employs 44, has already been featured in Bon Appetite, Food and Wine, Southern Living, Homestyle and Memphis Magazine. Freeman and Luckett are fielding calls for television interviews.

“We’ve had diners drive in from Jackson, Vicksburg and Tennessee, just to eat with us, and our traffic is growing so much that it’s essential to have reservations on the weekend,” Luckett said. “We get a lot of thank you letters and people calling to say it’s the best meal they’ve ever had.”

Civic and business leaders often call to say thanks for providing a venue for business dinners, Luckett said.

“Night before last, executives were recruiting a doctor to come to Clarksdale and brought him here,” he said. “The night before that, executives from Aquila, a $130-million generating plant, came in, as they often do. Many executives from local companies bring associates, and we are always seeing pharmaceutical companies coming in to entertain doctors.”

Melanie Flowers, owner of Shapley’s in Greenville, which opened in April 1998, said executive dining is the mainstay of her business.

“Companies around here have been so supportive,” Flowers said. “They’ll call me when they want to entertain and I don’t know what I’d do without them. I also think Delta people simply appreciate good food and good times and will go out of their way to experience them.”

Shapley’s serves up a diverse menu, including filets, steaks, Cajun catfish and even kibbe, a Lebanese appetizer.

“We get a lot of comments from customers about how glad they are that they have someplace nice to come and we’re so grateful to hear it because we try so hard,” she said.

Johnny Ballas, co-owner of The Crystal Grill, a restaurant in Greenwood owned by the Ballas family since the 1930s, said “travelers are a main reason for our success.”

“People turn off I-55 and drive 30 minutes out of their way to at here because they talk among themselves and everyone knows that word of mouth is the best advertising,” he said. The Crystal Grill is known for its breaded cutlets, ribeye steaks and seafood.

Some of Greenwood’s better restaurants also include Giardina’s, Lusco’s and Yanni’s. Viking Range recently purchased a 90-room hotel in Greenwood with plans to turn it into a five-star hotel with a restaurant.

“We’ve got more top-notch restaurants in one location than anywhere else around,” said Cliff Brumfield, executive director of the Greenwood-LeFlore Industrial Board and Economic Community Foundation. “It’s important when recruiting new industry. Several companies with Nissan-related projects have brought in business people on numerous occasions in recent weeks. To be able to take them from one world-class restaurant to another over the course of several nights makes a strong impression for a city the size of Greenwood.”

Karen and Andy Pinkston have owned Lusco’s, a four-generation restaurant established March 4, 1933, since Oct. 1, 1976. Customers that flock to Lusco’s to enjoy steaks and seafood represent every state in the U.S. and nearly every foreign country.

“On a daily basis, our customer base draws from Memphis to Jackson, within a 100-mile radius, but at least on a weekly basis, we have people here from all over the world — Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Great Britain, for instance —show up at any given time,” said Karen Pinkston. “People have always enjoyed bringing their business associates, partly because the restaurant is set up for privacy, and partly because of the shock value. When people pull up in front of our restaurant, which is located in an older part of downtown, they aren’t sure what to expect inside. We’ve tried to keep the original building looking pretty much the same and customers seem very pleased.”

K.C.’s in Cleveland, located less than a mile from Delta State University, was recently named one of the best restaurants in the south by Esquire Magazine, said Wally Joe, one of the family restaurant’s owners. K.C.’s, established in 1974, dishes up New American, global eclectic and Chinese cuisine in a California/New York style atmosphere, with a fully stocked bar and wine cellar. The restaurant stays so packed with private parties on the weekends that it’s only open to the public for lunch and dinner on weekdays.

“A lot of people in the Delta would like to claim that people drive and fly in from far away, but I think we’re the only restaurant that can actually say that,” said Joe. “Our reputation is not only local and regional, it’s nationwide. We’ve been featured in Bon Appetite, Gourmet, USA Today, Food Arts, and we were recently featured on CBS’ ‘Sunday Morning,’ and I’ll be making an appearance on NBC’s ‘Weekend Today’ in May. We try hard every day to live up to our reputation.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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